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RAPID + TCT Shows the Promise, Challenges of 3D Printing

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media
Amy Teal of Stratasys at the company's RAPID + TCT booth.

DETROIT – At this week’s RAPID + TCT show, the promise of additive manufacturing was on display. Exhibitors demonstrated how they could make parts large and small. How they could make objects from metal, polymers, and other materials.

One thing many don’t make is money.

“It’s still hard to earn money in additive manufacturing,” Fried Vancraen, founder and CEO of Materialise NV, said at a briefing at the company’s Plymouth, Mich., facility on May 16, the day before RAPID + TCT. “It’s important we think about the sustainability of this industry.”

The industry is expanding.

There is “growing demand from customers looking to” make products at scale, Wayne Davey, global head of sales & go-to-market of HP Inc.’s 3D Printing Solutions Business, said at RAPID + TCT. “People are coming to us.”

Additive manufacturing companies have increased their capacities.

Materialise, for example, has introduced a software platform called CO-AM. The company says the software makes it easier for customers to collaborate with Materialise. CO-AM features a “data lake” that keeps track of what’s happening on the production floor.

Participating companies have direct access to multiple hardware technologies. Materialise will also open CO-AM to independent software vendors. Materialise last year acquired Link 3D, a digital manufacturing company, to accelerate its software efforts.

Additive manufacturer Stratasys Ltd. is boosting its flexibility with customers. The company last year said announced “open” materials options so customers can use materials from non-Stratasys vendors on Stratasys printers. Options include materials that Stratasys has validated “with basic reliability testing,” the company said in a statement in November.

3D Systems earlier this year agreed to acquire Titan Robotics, a designer and fabricator of industrial 3D printers. Titan “is about big parts,” said Shell Hafner, vice president of platform management, at 3D Systems. “We have to be flexible.”

Additive has been embraced for aerospace and medical applications. Adoption in automotive, with its higher production volumes, has been slower. But there were examples at RAPID + TCT of how additive can have an impact in automotive.

General Motors Co. made a late design change on full-size SUVs. The alteration required production of two seals for a spoiler. GM worked with GKN Forecast 3D and HP to create 60,000 seals in five weeks for use on about 30,000 vehicles. Other production methods would have taken 12 weeks or longer.

At Desktop Metal’s RAPID + TCT stand, there was a display involving a polymer material it marks as FreeFoam. The material can be printed at a relatively small size. It expands after being heated in an oven. The Desktop Metal displayed showed how FreeFoam can be used in automotive seats. FreeFoam is to be available commercially in 2023.

More work remains.

“There is more supply than demand” for additive, said Travis Custer, vice president of digital print at Jabil, which has a network of printers from various companies in its manufacturing operations.

“In the metal space, there has to be more improvement in throughput and repeatability,” he said.

Other factors may help the additive industry.

For example, since the COVID-19 pandemic, some in industry have called for more localized production to avoid transportation logjams.

“The traditional supply chains are broken,” Yoav Zeif, CEO of Stratasys, said in a talk at RAPID + TCT. “Look at the ships in the Suez Canal.”

With additive, he said, “We are working more as an ecosystem of solution providers. I can print it where it’s needed.”

“The economics must work,” the executive added. “The technology is ready. Business leaders are ready.”

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